Friday, May 30, 2014

Angel Keys

My husband’s mother’s soap opera life brought us to Madrid.

Or more accurately, Morata, Spain.

My husband’s mother’s first love died in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War.  He was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the 15th Brigade. He was a good kisser. He survived Jarama, but was killed at Belchite after fighting for a year and a half against Franco’s forces. His name was Izzy.

My husband was born 8 ½ years later, but he wondered what it would have been like to have had this man as a father, and he wanted to pay him homage.  Before booking our flight to Madrid, he found a guide who could take us to Jarama, and he reserved a car at Puerto del Sol, which the car reservation website map showed was located in the center of Madrid.

We practiced the 16 lesson set of Pimsleur Castillian, so we could converse in minimal tourist dialogues, like where is it? and what does it cost?

We stayed in a room at a hotel in the center of Madrid near Puerto del Sol. My husband asked the hotel clerk at the desk for directions to the car rental office listed on our reservation.

The map was wrong. Yes, there was a Puerto del Sol, just blocks from the hotel, but the car rental office wasn’t there. It was in the suburbs.

For decades, I’ve tried to convince my husband that maps are only approximations. Even this glaring error could not convince him. Maps have gotten him lost before, but he always wants to blame himself and his map reading skills instead of inaccurate maps.

We went online to find a closer rental office. According to the car rental website, the nearest agency office had no cars available.

We tried to phone the agency headquarters.  Our cell phone global plan refused to connect us.

We tried the hotel phone.  It got us a busy signal, for which we had to pay 80 cents.

We tried a pay phone. Still no connection.

It looked as if our trip to Jarama might end like my husband’s mother’s romance – lots of planning, but no action.

So we decided to walk to the nearest car rental office, hoping to talk to somebody who could find us a car inside the city of Madrid.

The hotel clerk and the website agreed on the location of this office.  We were running out of time to meet with our guide.  We speed-walked to the designated address.  The office was supposed to be in a hotel. The hotel did not exist. We asked people on the street, using our best Pimsleur Castillian.  Nobody could direct us.  We weren’t sure if our Castillian was incomprehensible or if the hotel truly did not exist.  We had heard about traveling angels, but never the anti-travel sort.  Surely, there was no reason we shouldn’t visit the war museum and the old battle grounds.

Finally we walked into a hotel near the listed address.  As we waited in line to talk to the hotel clerk, I noticed a small desk at the back of the lobby decorated with a car rental sign.

Nobody was at the desk.  I imagined there would be a phone at the desk, and that we could use it to call the agency headquarters. This seemed like a desperate last hurrah.  Who knew what language they might speak on the other end of that phone.

As we walked towards the desk, a door in the wall opened.  A man came out and sat in the chair behind the desk.

My husband handed him our reservation receipt, and explained that we wanted a nearby car. The man understood.  He looked at his computer screen, clicked a few keys and printed us a new reservation form. This one was in Spanish.  I dreaded where he might send us next.

But then he opened his desk drawer. In it lay 2 sets of keys.  He handed my husband one set, and directed us toward the elevator.  He told us to find the car at 23.  This was all in Castillian, but we understood him, and thanked him.

While we waited for the elevator, I looked back at the desk.  Again, the chair was empty. I guess traveling angels don’t hang around when their jobs are done.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Eleven Bees: A Meditation

This is a guest blog by Jean Lorrah

I walk my dogs for at least a mile every day, meeting people, getting exercise, and watching the seasons change. We have distinct seasons here in Kentucky (where I have lived for over forty years), and being out there every day for many years I have noticed a combination of weather cycles and climate change. For example, up until 10-12 years ago, we cycled between wet and dry years, two or three dry years, then three or four wet years. There were always more wet than dry years, and there were always occasional localized floods. Now we seem to have only wet years, and the floods come more frequently and range over wider areas.

Recently our winters have been more severe than usual, and lasted longer. In the area where I live, severe winter weather usually runs from December through February, but this past winter started in November and kept us snowed in till the end of March. What I observe as I walk this spring makes me wonder about Nature's forms of compensation.

The first time I heard of Nature compensating was a few years ago when the peach crop in southern Illinois (in our news area) failed three years in a row because of late frosts that killed the blossoms before the fruit could set. The third year that happened, the trees bloomed for a second time--but along came yet another frost and killed them again. Not to be frustrated from their purpose for a third year in a row, the trees put out an unprecedented third bloom! That one survived, and the peach farmers had a crop that year.

The purpose of life is to propagate, which fruit trees do with flowers and fruit (which carries seeds to make new trees). I'm one of those people who tends to connect new information to old information, so when the news was filled with stories of bees dying out starting several years ago, I first connected the other insects I saw carrying out pollination on my walks with the missing honey bees, and then with the three blossomings of the peach trees.

Once I knew that bees were dying, I watched for them on my walks. There used to be lots of bees--it was not unusual to see dozens of them on one walk. But as the years passed there really were fewer ... and fewer ... until last year, the entire year I counted only two. That's not two bees per walk--it's only two honey bees the entire year!

But as the bees dwindled, the flowers did not. Every year there were as many as ever, the fruit trees produced fruit--how could that be if they were not being pollinated? They were--I was fascinated to see all sorts of insects doing the job the honeybees used to do. There were the big slow bumblers, and wasps, various flies, and even beetles. Nature made sure plants continued to be pollinated in spite of the dearth of bees.

And finally, this year, some of the bees are back. In the past three weeks I have seen eleven honey bees at work collecting pollen. Oh, that's still a tiny number, but eleven in three weeks is far better than two in an entire summer!

We've just come out of the longest, coldest winter on record--records that have been kept for more than a century. It's always been a rare thing to have snow in this part of the country after February. This year the second week in March saw a storm that closed everything for days: roads, schools, businesses, the Post Office. That used to happen once in a decade, and always in January or February, once in a great while in December. This year snow buried the crocuses and daffodils which came up on schedule.

And now--our little city is an absolute riot of flowers! Since spring finally arrived, a full two weeks after the Spring Equinox, March, April, May, and even a few June blooms are all flowering at once. Furthermore, each and every bush, tree, and plot of flowers has the biggest, thickest blooms I've ever seen.

Even the lowly clover is a carpet of white this spring, with the individual flower heads twice as big as usual. Before the clover blossomed, as the first warm days melted the snow and coaxed out the dandelions, the local news broadcasters asked people to please not immediately pull them out as weeds, but leave them for the bees.

But it didn't take long for everything to rush into bloom--from huge azaleas (up above) to the irises that usually flower in June.

Even the rhododendron bloomed in May. Not just for the bees, of course, but Nature overcoming the horrible winter all at once, it seems. I took all the pictures you see here within the past two weeks, and have decided to spare your bandwidth the roses, peonies, magnolia, mock orange, honeysuckle, violets, buttercups, and daisies.

And then last night, as I took the dogs out before bedtime, I discovered that it's not just flowers coming out early. On May 21, over a month early, I saw the blinking of the season's first firefly!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Net Neutrality and You

This is a guest post by Jean Lorrah.

Have you been ignoring or avoiding all the talk about the threat to Net Neutrality, thinking it has nothing to do with you? It's just silly hysteria? After all, websites pop up on your computer almost instantly--what do you care if sites belonging to Comcast or Verizon pop up faster? Or if the internet runs faster for their customers than for you? Or for corporations and wealthy individuals? Surely it can't make a perceptible difference.

Well, if the FCC decides against the Net Neutrality that has prevailed so far (equal treatment for everyone) and for allowing big corporations and wealthy individuals to purchase a place in the "fast lane," it won't mean so much that they go faster, but that you and all the millions of other ordinary people and small businesses will suddenly have slower service.

You may be able to reach Google and Amazon and other big companies with deep pockets as usual, but you will notice a perceptible lag in your email and everything coming from sites that can't afford the new fees. What will happen when you or your children need to download lessons for school? Can your school system afford to pay the price of being in that "fast lane"? If not, what takes a few seconds now may take several minutes--even hours for videos. It could feel like going back to dialup--remember those days? Streaming video could become a thing of the past--oh, you could still pay to watch commercial movies from Netflix or Hulu, but you could no longer see the ones your family posts featuring your grandkids.

We do not know which services will be most affected, or how, but we do know that it's not that those who "pay to play" will be speeded up. It's that the rest will be slowed down. Looking for a local doctor? Good luck waiting for those pages to load. Advertising your own beauty shop, boutique, or specialty store? Good luck waiting for customers to find you online.

Furthermore, what the FCC wants to do could allow your service provider to censor your internet, allowing you to see only what it thinks appropriate. Here's an article that explains that aspect better than I can: TV Creators Warn FCC: Don't Let Internet Become Like Cable Television.

This is what those annoying news stories are all about. Can you do anything about it? Yes, you can. Add your name to the list of protesters before the FCC decides people don't care, so they may as well take the money and run. You only have to sign once, at your choice of the many websites offering the opportunity. Or you may add your name to as many petitions as you feel express your feelings.

But hurry! The FCC will make its decision this Thursday, May 15.

Here are some websites where you can add your name:

Say No To The Internet Slowdown

Save Net Neutrality

Educators for Fair, Unbiased Internet Access

Protect Net Neutrality

Thursday, May 8, 2014

I Am Officially A Curmudgeon

My husband, the alien, and I visited our younger daughter’s family in Virginia for 2 days.  We spent the first day watching our granddaughter play soccer, which is okay. She’s timid. She runs around, hits the ball occasionally, and stays away from the mad swingers.

Then we went to our grandson’s LaCrosse game.  I had never seen one before.  I never want to see one again.  These children hit each other with sticks while they chase a ball around a field.  According to my grandson, he likes hitting and being hit. This is why he prefers LaCrosse to soccer, where hitting isn’t allowed.

At his age, they are allowed to hit horizontally, but not vertically. This means they can whack a kneecap or a rib, but not a collar bone. The children wear padding, but it is clear that they can be injured.

I said what I thought.  I wish my grandson wouldn’t play this game.  Why not Aikido?  He could fall down (that feels similar to being hit) and he could knock others down (which is similar to hitting.)  Or tennis, in which he could hit a ball and make his opponent run to get it.  But these are not  team sports. My grandson likes team sports. I prefer individual sports like yoga or gymnastics, or swimming. I just do the activities for the physical pleasure they bring me. I see no pleasure in hitting or being hit.

Baseball is a team sport in which no one intentionally hurts another. Basketball can be played by people who do not intentionally commit fouls. Volleyball does not require injuring fellow players. Rowing teams work together.  There are even bowling teams, although I think of bowling as more of an individual sport.

I suppose I should be happy he’s not playing football or ice hockey. I don’t live near my grandchildren.  We have to schedule visiting times. I don’t want to spend my visiting time watching my grandson being pummeled.

Scheduling visits on weekends when there are no LaCrosse games may severely limit when we can see each other. If he were my child, he wouldn’t be playing LaCrosse. My daughter is fine with it. There are parts of our lives we cannot comfortably share.

I used to think my grandfather was a curmudgeon because he wasn’t interested in many of my activities, like gymnastics or code-breaking, or liberal politics.  Now I am the curmudgeon.